Faith and Reason: The Two Wings of the Human Spirit (Part II)
When faith and reason are both properly understood, it is much easier to learn how to fly with both wings of faith and of reason together. Birds, we observe, learn to fly gradually and by practice. To be sure, one learns how to fly with faith and reason gradually and by practice. In order to facilitate that learning, we now present seven ways in which faith and reason relate to each other. Each of these seven ways also reveals an ongoing task for the Church as a whole and for individual faithful in order for us together to cultivate an intelligent faith and faithful intelligence. In each of the following numbered points we name the relation, define it in italics, clarify it with further comments and examples, and discuss the ongoing task it sets before the whole Church.
1. Consistency. Right faith and right reason are logically consistent with each other. Whatever God has in fact revealed for acceptance by faith and whatever has been genuinely demonstrated by reason do not and cannot contradict. For if God reveals something to be accepted by faith, then it is true. And if something has been genuinely demonstrated by reason, then it too is true. Since no truth can contradict another truth, what is held by a right faith and what is demonstrated by right reason cannot contradict one another.
The difficulty is that faith and reason sometimes seem to contradict. In such cases, we know that the appearance is due either to a faulty use of reason or to a misinterpretation of divine revelation. It would be a faulty use of reason to say that the universe is in a steady state without beginning or end. It would be a misinterpretation of divine revelation to say that God has revealed that the sun is the center of the universe. Because there can be faulty uses of reason or misinterpretations of divine revelation, it is important to say that right reason and right faith are consistent.
At any one point in time, however, the Church faces a host of apparent contradictions between faith and reason. We can call these apparent contradictions simply difficulties. These difficulties are valuable precisely because they tell us there is either a faulty use of reason or a misinterpretation of divine revelation somewhere in our thinking, and the difficulties call us to think more deeply, do more research, draw distinctions, and grow in our understanding. Aristotle thought that the collecting of such difficulties, and the sorting out of such difficulties, was at the heart of the process of rational discovery and growth in understanding. Contemporary philosophers of science have shown how a great deal of scientific research consists mainly in accounting for aberrations and anomalies in current research paradigms. So it is too for Christians. Understanding grows by gradually resolving difficulties between faith and reason.
There are many contemporary difficulties. Evolutionary biology seems to affirm that man is not a special creation by God but just the product of a meaningless chance process while Sacred Scripture seems to affirm that man is a special creation and not the product of a meaningless chance process (or not just the product of meaningless chance). It has been claimed that historical critical exegesis of Scripture seems to affirm that Jesus of Nazareth did not claim to be God though divine revelation received in faith according to the understanding of the Church seems to affirm that Jesus of Nazareth did claim to be God. According to divine revelation traditionally understood, the human person has a soul that survives death. According to the vast majority of cognitive science researchers and philosophers of mind today, the human person does not have a soul at all. In all of these cases, layers of lesser difficulties need to be resolved. Naming the apparent contradictions, elaborating the issues they involve, and seeking to resolve them are a vast task at hand.
2. Support. Right reason can demonstrate many truths about God and support some of the things we believe by faith in God’s revelation. The Church claims that human reason, rightly used, is capable of giving solid arguments for the existence of God as well as various divine attributes. In so doing, human reason can also account for how its own language applies to God. Human reason can also provide good arguments for the immateriality and immortality of the human soul. Furthermore, human reason can also provide many arguments that corroborate or confirm that what we believe is a divine revelation is in fact a divine revelation (as opposed to a lie, fraud, myth, psychological disorder, etc.). In all these ways, right reason supports what we believe by faith.
The Church also understands that not all human beings are equally capable of doing all the intellectual learning needed to elaborate or fathom all such arguments. The task, rather, falls to a few who are gifted with the aptitude, time, and leisure for such studies. Nonetheless, there are in the Church some people with a calling to take up just this task of searching into reasons in support of the faith, and the Church exhorts all to develop their own personal intellectual potential to the full.
3. Defense. Right reason can refute objections brought against things we believe by faith. Skeptics are often not content with requesting evidence that supports Christian beliefs, but they often advance arguments attempting to show that Christian beliefs are false. Human reason, sometimes proceeding as philosophical reason and sometimes proceeding in the manner of other disciplines such as history, archaeology, biology, philology, etc., is able to show that such arguments fail to arrive at their conclusions.
For example, it is commonly said that the Incarnation of God in the man Jesus of Nazareth is impossible, or the doctrine of the Trinity is incoherent, or that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead could not have happened, or that transubstantiation (the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist) is absurd, or that the doctrine of papal infallibility is provably false on historical grounds. All of these claims are advanced with arguments, and sometimes apparently compelling arguments.
Human reason does not always easily find the fallacy in such arguments. The current state of the evidence may provide what seems to be deep support for positions incompatible with a particular Christian belief. But nonetheless it falls to reason to answer these objections if only by undertaking new research with a view to refuting them in the future. The task at hand is to gather these objections, humbly give them a fair hearing, humbly welcome what truth they hold, and answer them without a proud and polemical spirit.
4. Illumination. Right reason can discover many truths that enhance our understanding of what we believe by faith in God’s revelation. Any truth knowable by philosophical reason or by human learning generally has the potential, either directly or indirectly, to enhance the believer’s understanding of the mysteries of faith. There are many examples.
The classical principle that “all goods are either means or ends or both” is very illuminating for the faith. St. Thomas Aquinas understands our faith such that union with the Holy Trinity is the end of human life, and the Incarnation is the means to that union.
Aristotle understanding of human nature as a body-soul composite possessing certain powers is a truth knowable by philosophical reason that helps us to say more precisely what we mean when we say that God became man in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus had a human body and soul and all of the powers that go with the composite.
The distinction between substance and accident illuminates the mystery of the Eucharist. In the Eucharistic celebration, the bread and wine change in their very substance into the Body and Blood of Jesus, but the accidents of bread and wine remain.
The distinction between agent and instrumental cause illuminates both God’s relation to creatures. God is the primary cause of creatures who gives them being and influences their activities. Creatures are instruments through which God produces his effects. God uses rain to hydrate living things.
Historical and archaeological studies, too, have uncovered truths that illuminate our faith. To give a particular example, sound scholarship has established that “the Judaism of the [Christ’s] day was familiar both with more generally formulaic confessions of sin and with a highly personalized confessional practice in which an enumeration of individual sinful deeds was expected.”1 This historical fact sets the context for the baptism of Jesus, and helps us to see how by his baptism Jesus chose to be counted among sinners as an anticipation of his cross and also in fulfillment of prophecy (Is. 53:12).
Whether philosophical reason or historical reason or scientific reason, all truth gathered “from below” potentially serves to understand the mysteries of faith. It is the task of systematic theology to take from the truths discovered by right reason and use them to illuminate the riches of the faith.
5. Correction. Right faith corrects many errors that reason commonly makes. It is commonly acknowledged that the history of human learning is a history of errors and mistakes (though it is not just errors and mistakes). Human inquiry, therefore, stands to benefit from having a higher light or criterion to show such errors and mistakes for what they are. Now, as pointed out above, any purported deliverance of reason that contradicts what God has revealed cannot itself be true or a deliverance of right reason. For this reason, faith and revelation point out many errors of reason.
Standing on faith in the divine revelation given in Christ Jesus, as understood by the Church, one can know quickly that moral relativism is not true, materialist reductionist accounts of the human person are not true, that nihilism is not true. If a believer hears it claimed that the world is eternal, or that there is no afterlife for human beings, or human beings have no free will, or that human beings are nothing but the product of a meaningless, blind, chance process, then the believer’s faith alerts him or her to the presence of error. Not all errors are detected so easily. Both a deep catechesis and deep personal holiness make believers more sensitive to more subtle errors.
Given the corrective power of the faith, the task at hand is to point out errors, especially the more subtle ones, and to show what is compatible and incompatible with what God has revealed.
6. Illumination from above. Right faith allows the person to see all created things in relation to God. If one believes that God exists, has created all things, and rules all things by his providence, then a wonderful form of contemplation opens before the believer. All things can be “read” in light of God.
For example, let us consider the distance of the earth from the sun. If the earth had been a bit closer to the sun, then earth would be too hot for life. If the earth had been a little farther from the sun, the earth would have been too cold for life. How then shall we understand the fact, and the meaning of the fact, that the earth is approximately ninety three million miles the sun?
If we set aside the existence and providence of God, then the distance of the earth from the sun is just one more fact among many to be explained. But if God exists, created all things, and orders all things well by his providence, then the distance of the earth from the sun has a deeper significance or meaning – a sort of depth dimension. For the distance of the earth from the sun is now a fact related to God. Given that relation, it makes sense to say that the distance of the earth from the sun is just what God arranged it to be for human life to flourish on earth.
The existence and providence of God sheds light on the meaning of many more facts too, and perhaps on the meaning of all the scientific facts. The elements and their properties, initial conditions of the cosmos, the earth’s initial chemical composition, the various cycles of water, nitrogen, etc., all of it has a depth dimension if God exists, created it, and orders it by his providence.
The Fathers of the Church were accustomed to “reading” the world this way – in light of God. So were Christian thinkers after them for centuries. One of the destructive effects of modern research and educational methods, which intentionally aim to be neutral about whether God exists and exercises providence over things, is that academically qualified researchers no long read the world in light of God or teach people how to read the world in light of God. This, we venture to say, is one of the contributing factors to the widely felt sense of the absence of God from our lifeworld.
The task at hand for us today is to relearn this form of contemplation that reads the world in light of God’s existence and providence. Even more radically, the task is to read all things in light of the revealed mysteries of the Trinity, Incarnation, and Paschal Mystery.
7. Fulfillment. Right faith provides answers to some of the most common yet most difficult questions raised by reason. Human reason has many questions, but the history of thought proves that human reason faces great difficulties in finding shared answers to its own most profound questions. Philosophical questions about whether life has a meaning and what it is, whether there is a God, why God would permit evil, whether human beings have a purpose and happiness beyond life in this world and what it is, whether it is possible for universal justice ever to be secured in human society, and other such fundamental questions have been raised seemingly, in all or most human societies. But answers to those questions seem also to elude the human reasoning both with philosophers and with common people. The diversity of answers given, the mutual contradictions, the endless debates, and shifting sands of time and culture make things difficult enough, but in our day, when positivism, scientism, relativism, nihilism, and anti-metaphysical postmodernism are influential, it is all the more difficult for people to avoid despair over coming to widely shared answers to a variety of significant human questions.
Faith in divine revelation, however, speaks to all of these questions and more. When one believes by faith the testimony offered by God, one receives answers to the questions of life. And those answers are susceptible to support, defense, and illumination by reason. The same answers serve also to correct and illuminate our own human learning.
The task today falls to Christian philosophers, theologians, and scientists to show precisely how divine revelation speaks to the deepest human questions and offers answers that form a compelling account of reality as a whole.
— Rev. James Brent, O.P.
Pope Benedicy XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, trans. Adrian Walker (New York: Doubleday, 2007): p.15. ↩